JACK: Well, what’s the assistant director do, like?
DOREEN: He assists the director.
JACK: What does the director do, then?
BARBARA: Shut up, Jack.
That exchange, from Peter Gill’s 2001 play The York Realist, effectively sums up the myths and misunderstandings, and even the agita, surrounding the topic of assisting in the theatre. I’ll return to Gill’s play later (which carries some assistant director lore of its own), but, in the meantime, I will ask Jack’s question myself. What does the assistant do? Is he a vital team member, a silent observer, or just the one person who knows how the director takes her coffee?
Nearly everyone I know in the professional theatre has had the word “assistant” next to his or her name at some point. Assisting might come before, after, instead of or even as part of formal training programs. Emerging directors, choreographers, music directors and designers often spend years (or decades) in the assisting phase. Some stay with the same artist, forging strong mentorships over many projects. Others assist a different professional each time, seeking out specific skills or experiences. (For example, a young choreographer might work under a director/choreographer, or an emerging designer might seek opportunities in opera.) Stage managers and technical directors often begin their careers as production assistants, moving up to becoming assistant stage managers or associate production managers before finally taking the big title. Actors might serve as assistants to casting directors or agents; writers find assisting work in television writers’ rooms or as script supervisors; and young producers take gigs as assistant or associate producers. And everyone, it seems, knows someone with a great celebrity-assisting story.
And yet, speaking to both young and established artists, as well as those on the administrative side, I found little consensus as to how one becomes an assistant, what one does and whether (and to what degree) it advances one’s career. Theatre professionals at all stages openly wonder if assisting is even a necessary step on the way from “emerging” to “emergent.” Responsibilities, compensation and access for assistants vary widely. One theatre might pay a generous weekly wage, outline specific duties and expectations, and plan auxiliary career-development activities (such as taking master classes or directing readings), while another theatre across town offers none of these things.
Furthermore, titles like “observer,” “associate,” “assistant to” and the ubiquitous “intern” are sometimes used interchangeably with “assistant,” contributing to the confusion about just what that eager young person with a notepad is doing there in the corner.
For every young artist who spoke glowingly to me about assisting, cited countless professional and creative benefits, and expressed confidence that assisting would lead to great things, someone else told a different story. “Assisting has made me subservient, deferential and frustrated,” said a playwright who preferred to be left unnamed. “You learn to be polite and agreeable, or risk being shot down. Yes, I’ve met many important people, but only as so-and-so’s assistant—which doesn’t necessarily make them interested in me as an individual.” One assistant director had been at it for so long that he questioned whether he would even want to supervise his own shows. Assisting had treated him well, he said, giving him more stability than he thought directing ever would. Assisting seems to be the elephant in the room of most early-career theatre artists: We all know it’s there, but no one really seems to know how to talk about it.
In my own experience as an assistant director—which began at North Carolina’s PlayMakers Repertory Company while I was studying at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, and has continued at regional, Off-Broadway and Broadway theatres—I have felt similar highs and lows. I have certainly met people who have become mentors, colleagues and champions, but I have also worried about breaking protocol by “poaching” contacts I met as an assistant. At times, I’ve felt totally useful, and at other times, I’ve felt like furniture (sometimes even furniture from a different house). However, I can easily point to many ways assisting has made me a stronger theatre artist. I know I have been lucky—many of the directors I’ve worked under were once assistants themselves, which made them especially welcoming of my contribution. One thing assistant directing has definitely provided me with is a lot to say about assistant directing.
A note: In this article, I use the terms “professional” and “artist” to signify whomever the assistant is assisting. I don’t mean to imply that the assistant is somehow less professional or artistic. It is simply for clarity: Assume those terms encompass directors, choreographers, music directors, playwrights, stage managers and anyone on the team who might have an assistant.
“So, What Exactly Do You Do?”
On a very basic level, the assistant is there to support the professional, and, by extension, the production. The exact nature of that support varies depending on the artist’s and the project’s specific needs and the assistant’s abilities.
At the highest level, an assistant director might be responsible for casting and rehearsing understudies; communicating with writers, designers, dialect coaches, choreographers and conductors; scheduling rehearsals alongside the stage manager; running a second rehearsal room; and even taking over for the director if he becomes temporarily unavailable. Often the assistant director helps the stage manager maintain the show over a long run. Sometimes this is an informal arrangement (“Stop by once a week to make sure Hamlet is remembering his lines”), and sometimes the assistant takes a new title (such as resident director) after the show opens. Some assistant directors have reported slightly more off-base tasks like planning opening-night parties, or helping an actor “research” for a role in drag. Once, while assisting on a big-budget musical, I spent an afternoon of dry tech on stage in a coffin while the lighting was tested. (The coffin was later cut.)
Generally speaking, the assistant director’s duties are less consistently defined than those in other disciplines. While an assistant choreographer “has to be a really great dancer” to demonstrate moves, an assistant director, by contrast, “is not there because she can act,” according to New York–based director/choreographer Sara-Ashley Bischoff. “You’re not getting up and demonstrating the staging or how the acting’s done.” Assisting in the technical fields generally entails a more concrete and consistent list of duties (see “Design Is Not a Private Affair”). Top-shelf designers in New York are often midway through dozens of separate projects all over the country (or the world). It is not unusual to find a designer with a sizable staff of assistants and associates, each one managing a different project. Design assistants are charged with duties ranging from building models or making renderings to visiting shops, fitting actors, managing project budgets or being present at technical rehearsals when the designer is elsewhere. Assistants to playwrights and composers might keep various drafts organized, type up notes, attend rehearsals, answer e-mails or maintain archives.
Getting the Gig
There are two main entry points for would-be assistants: the theatre organization or the professional artist. In some cases, a theatre company allows the professional to engage his or her own assistant (sometimes it’s even worked into their contract). In that case, your best bet is to get on established artists’ radars as a potential assistant. One method of gaining access to someone you’d like to assist is through their current assistant, especially if that assistant is transitioning out of his or her role. Assistants are often more approachable than the person they are assisting, and as long as you are up-front about your intentions, many would be happy to add your name to the mix. Hang around after a preview or talkback and ask someone to point you in the direction of the assistant director or designer. If that doesn’t work, try old-fashioned networking, and don’t be shy. I got my first assistant directing job at Chicago Shakespeare Theater by writing a letter. (People still read letters, believe it or not.) Damon Krometis, a director currently in Northwestern University’s directing MFA program, landed his first A.D. job by finding the book writer at a party, establishing a connection, and asking to be put in touch with the project’s director. Songwriter Will Van Dyke scored a plum gig by cold-contacting Andrew Lippa via the composer’s website. “It was a long shot,” Van Dyke recalls, “but I was trying to break into the music directing world and learn about composition, and New York University, where I was enrolled, told me to look for an internship. Andrew and I clicked and I ended up assisting him off and on until The Addams Family opened on Broadway.”
Another overlooked way to become an assistant is to try to meet theatre staffers beyond the top brass. A busy artistic director may get hundreds of résumés every month. Get to know others in the artistic or production office—associate artistic directors, literary managers, general managers, associate producers—who are sometimes closer to where you are in your career and therefore might be more sympathetic, and who frequently comprise the team that hires assistants. Eric Louie, associate producer at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, cannot stress this enough. “Contacting the artistic director is the wrong way to go,” he says. “Find any connection to the theatre staff.” Louie says that assisting assignments at New York City’s Public Theater (where he served as director of special projects) are made with that theatre’s focus on developing new theatre artists in mind. “We’d look for a young artist we wanted to bring into the family,” he says, “and try to give him or her a break.” Assistants come onto the Public’s radar largely through staff members sharing information with one another, although Louie estimates that about half the season’s projects come with assistant directors already attached (an even higher percentage in the case of designers). “Hiring an assistant begins with an internal conversation about a few different candidates’ personality types and artistic interests,” says Louie. “Usually someone in the building has seen some of the assistant’s own work, but personality often trumps what they can do as an artist.”
Many young artists hope to use assisting as a way to move to a new city, perhaps after finishing a training program or between undergrad and graduate school. This can be tricky, especially if finding assistant work relies so heavily on having a professional network already in place. Fortunately, a number of theatre organizations offer application-based assisting fellowships that can help you bridge the divide. Among the most prominent of these is the SDC Foundation (a program of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society), and the Drama League, both based in New York. Every season, the SDC Foundation arranges several dozen observerships and fellowships with master directors and choreographers all over the country, according to director of programs Ellen Rusconi. Participants receive a weekly stipend, travel and housing stipends if appropriate, and a one-year associate membership in SDC. According to Rusconi, the program’s success is due to the willingness of members to give back by hosting observers. While observing is often a step below assisting, one can lead to the other: Director Avital Rutenberg Shoenberg met Michael Halberstam while observing him direct A Minister’s Wife at Lincoln Center Theater. He later invited her to be his assistant on The Real Thing at Chicago’s Writers’ Theatre, where he is artistic director.
The Drama League also offers a number of paid fellowships for emerging directors, including its flagship Fall Directing Program. The program includes, among other components, one or two assistant-director assignments, either in New York or at a regional partner theatre. As the application process is competitive and the program well known, Fall Fellows sometimes find themselves getting unique assisting opportunities: it was my own 2009 Drama League fall fellowship that landed me in that onstage coffin, during the pre-Broadway tryout of The Addams Family. Director Mike Donahue, also a 2009 Fall Fellow, assisted producing artistic director Joseph Haj and co-director Tom Quaintance on PlayMakers’ Nicholas Nickleby. His placement proved to be fruitful for both parties: Donahue returned to PlayMakers this fall to direct A Number for the company’s second stage and is co-directing a new adaptation of Henry IV and Henry V with Haj opening this month.
A Matter of Degree
Assisting is the classic “no promises” job—you make the most of it you can, and even a terrible situation might be a learning opportunity. In some cases, the learning is for credit, too. Many undergraduate and graduate training programs incorporate assisting into the curriculum, particularly those with professional theatres attached to the school. Graduate programs at Yale School of Drama, University of California at San Diego, Brown University and Illinois State University, among others, offer assistantships to directors, designers and stage managers at on-campus theatre partners (Yale Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, Trinity Repertory Company and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival are connected to those programs, respectively).
Yale School of Drama and Yale Rep communications director Steven Padla describes the theatre as the “master teacher” to the school, a relationship that enhances every department. Many Yale students in stage management and design complete both assistant-level and full-blown PSM or designer assignments during their three years. Directing students typically assist at least once at Yale Rep, and also serve as assistant directors to more advanced students on School of Drama productions.
Graduate programs without professional theatres attached also help arrange assisting opportunities. Jimmy Maize, an MFA directing student at Columbia University, explained that program director (and SITI Company artistic director) Anne Bogart brings professionals in to meet students through a regular “Visiting Directors” seminar. Through this seminar, Maize met Tina Landau, which eventually led to an assistant directing opportunity. Undergraduate programs, particularly those with access to professional guest artists, can also open doors to assisting. At Fordham University in New York City, assisting is fully integrated into the curriculum. Each mainstage production has a full slate of student assistants, each of whom completes 120 hours of contact time with the professional guest artist or faculty member working on the production. According to Kris Stone, head of the design and production program at Fordham (and an accomplished scenic designer), student assistants also serve as liaisons between the guest artist, the shops and the university. “Therefore, input and responsibility are not only possible, but inevitable and educational,” says Stone.
Assisting Without Freelancing
Many assistants, like the professionals they assist, are freelancers, working at different theatres (sometimes in different cities or countries) for each project. This track prepares them for the peripatetic lifestyle many will have, which often involves as much schedule juggling as art-making. For those who prefer a little more stability, or who are interested in learning how to run an institution while assisting, there is hope. A handful of theatres have staff positions that include assistant directing, giving young people exposure to both sides of the equation.
Will Steinberger, a Philadelphia-based director, holds one such position. After completing an internship at that city’s Wilma Theater, he was brought onto the staff, where his title currently is literary/artistic assistant. In addition to helping the Wilma with various artistic tasks (such as reading plays or leading post-show talks), Steinberger assists the director or dramaturg on several productions per season. Despite his enthusiasm about his position and high praise for his mentor, artistic director Blanka Zizka (who has come to see his own work and has engaged him to direct a reading at the Wilma later this year), Steinberger knows there are many steps between his current activities and getting one of the theatre’s few directing slots. Still, he says, working at the Wilma has been satisfying both professionally and creatively, in part because the small staff size puts him closer to the top leadership.
Another theatre staffer who has incorporated assisting into her job duties is Jesca Prudencio, production associate and education coordinator at New York City’s Ping Chong & Company. Like Steinberger, Prudencio came into her position through an internship that evolved into a full-time staff position lasting four years (and counting). She has assistant directed numerous times for Chong, who now trusts her enough to send her on tour with his productions. Prudencio can name specific influences her long association with Chong has had on her theatremaking, such as her use of oral history, movement and site-specific composition. Prudencio identifies another positive benefit assisting has had on her freelance work, one which was echoed by many assistants: Her understanding of how an established theatre company works helps her to “bring a sort of professionalism to the table” when she works as a director with other companies.
Another way to incorporate some stability into your lifestyle as an assistant is to pursue one of the yearlong assisting fellowships around the country. These are often paid positions that enable the young artist to devote a full season to assisting at one company. Playwrights Horizons in New York offers a Theatrical Residency Program (the opportunity that first brought me to New York) in directing, stage management, casting, literary management, musical theatre, marketing and production management that combines typical internship responsibilities with project-based assisting (see “I Get a Sidekick out of You”). The two directing residents, for example, alternate assistant directing each of the theatre’s season offerings.
Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., also offers a full-season resident assistant director position, and both directors and designers can apply for season-length internship or assistantship programs at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Denver Center Theatre Company, PCPA TheaterFest and many others. (It’s worth noting that regional opera houses also often hire staff assistant directors, as do many theatres in the U.K., including Donmar Warehouse, the Finborough Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre.)
Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago offers a unique new program for young actors who may also have an interest in directing. The Steppenwolf Acting Fellowship is an extension of the theatre’s highly regarded summer-long School at Steppenwolf. Acting fellows receive a full tuition scholarship to the school, as well as six months of paid assignments as both understudy and assistant director on Steppenwolf productions.
Other theatre artists interested in assisting can also find longer-term positions. Serving as a personal assistant for a big star can be lucrative and will make for great stories afterwards (provided your confidentiality agreement has expired). It has taught one actor (who asked not to be named) countless lessons about the ins and outs of a successful actor’s life. It’s even a crash course on acting, as he gets to observe how his boss prepares for a demanding scene or adjusts to different directorial styles. However, he cautions, “This will only translate into acting gigs if I get most of the way there myself. When I’m already guest starring on a different show, [the producers] may very well take me seriously enough to audition me for this one.”
Getting hired by an artist outside your field can also be valuable. Nikole Beckwith, an actor and playwright, credits her job assisting Eric Bogosian as fundamental in her decision to try writing. Beckwith says Bogosian’s “take-it-in-your-own-hands approach to living and art” still influences her work.
Making Assisting Work
A successful assistantship is one that benefits both parties in a meaningful way. Managing expectations and building trust are key. According to Beckwith, an artist’s work “is an extension of themselves. You have to recognize that and respect that. Even if it just feels like you are answering e-mails and sorting mail, you have to be aware that it is part of something bigger.” When interviewing for assisting positions, ask how the professional envisions your relationship. Questions like, “How have assistants proven useful to you in the past?” and “What’s the best way for me to comment on what I’m seeing?” can be great conversation starters.
As you start a new assignment, take a moment to establish your own creative and professional goals. The assistant is there to do a job, and that must take precedence over personal ambition. However, it’s important to remember that assisting is, on some level, a means to an end. Clarifying for yourself why you are actually taking this job will help you find satisfaction in what can be a maddeningly ill-defined role. Bischoff acknowledges that the “first few weeks when you’re trying to navigate your role in the room…can be very frustrating.” Her advice? “Have a purpose in the room,” she says, “even if it’s just getting coffee.” Eventually, if you stay mentally present, your role may expand.
Dan Stermer, a director/choreographer based in Chicago, agrees. “Assisting is great because there is less direct responsibility involved,” explains Stermer, leaving more time to “think about process and how to be a director.”
Once you’ve got the job, bring yourself up to speed on the project’s development thus far. On a new play, early script drafts or cut songs can illuminate the creative team’s trajectory. If you are working on a classic, familiarize yourself with different translations or editions in case discrepancies arise. (When I worked as an assistant director at Chicago Shakespeare, this was an important part of my job: keeping the Arden, Folger, Riverside, First Folio and other editions of the play easily at hand. You never know when a semicolon will come into dispute.)
Often, assistant directors are brought on long after the casting phase. Having a frank (and private) discussion about casting with the director can help you understand how she approaches each character, and provide some insight into this important directorial duty. The Wilma’s Steinberger advises learning each director’s personal idiosyncrasies in order to get the most out of your interaction with them. “When I was assisting for David Auburn,” he says, “that meant coming in 90 minutes before rehearsal started. When assisting for Blanka Zizka, that more often meant staying after and talking into the night.”
Fostering friendships with others on the team is crucial. Last year, Bischoff received the SDC Traube Fellowship, an opportunity to “assist or observe” on a large-scale production. When she joined the directorial team of the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, she found that director/choreographer Rob Ashford had a solid team of assistants and associates already in place. Instead of feeling shut out, Bischoff says that she maintained a friendly attitude and “developed a close relationship with the assisting team,” including the associate director, who took her under his wing. By the end of tech, she felt confident enough to make suggestions to Ashford. Says Bischoff, “I was a full member of the team.”
Making the Leap
The unspoken promise is that assisting will eventually lead to one’s own opportunities. What’s shrouded in mystery, or dictated by individual circumstances, is how one makes that leap: Is it the number of credits, the size of each production, the reputation of the artists assisted, the responsibilities assigned, or a combination of those factors? In the words of New York–based director Kareem Fahmy, what kind of assisting will “legitimize” you best? And once you’ve started assisting, how do you stop? “I always think I’ve stopped assisting until the next too-good-to-refuse job comes along,” says Laura Savia, another New York–based director. Ultimately, those decisions, like many we make in our artistic careers, are personal.
In Gill’s The York Realist, quoted above, an assistant director tries to persuade a reluctant actor to return to the show (with less-than-pure intentions). The play shows assisting in action off stage as well. The original assistant director on Gill’s play was a young director named Josie Rourke. Now, 10 years later, Rourke is the new artistic director at London’s Donmar Warehouse, her second such title after leading the Bush Theatre since 2007. Rourke’s first season at the Donmar will include a play directed by Gill (Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly), a rare example of someone’s assistant director becoming his artistic director in the space of a decade.
Says Stermer: “Assisting is the thing you have to do before you get to the good stuff. And there is a sort of hazing process. Everyone has been embarrassed in front of the production team, spoken out of turn, forgot to send the notes in an e-mail, etc. It sort of toughens the skin so you can go on and be the director in the room.” Perhaps that’s the perfect attitude: Even when it’s creatively difficult, assisting builds personality traits that will help you later in your career. If nothing else, those rough days give you something to commiserate over with fellow assistants.
In fact, assistants often forge the strongest bonds with one another. “Assisting has been a great way for me to work with new designers,” says Ping Chong & Company’s Prudencio. “They are usually the assistant sound, light or projection [designers] and I have brought them to work on my own productions.” Playwright, screenwriter and veteran assistant Joe Tracz takes that bond one step further. “It’s totally a cult,” says Tracz, “the Cult of Former Assistants. Only instead of a secret handshake, you recite a coffee order and you’re in.”
The circle rises together, as the expression goes. Decades from now, you and your colleagues will fondly reminisce about that crazy time you were both starting out as assistants (before the awards, before the fame…). And then one of you will call over your own assistant, a young, emerging, bright-eyed thing, who will set down his notepad and dash out to get today’s lunch.